Relax responsibly

Eva Malmström, co-founder and creative director of Soneva resorts, blends luxury with sustainability, writes Jacqueline Tsang


Q. When you and your husband Sonu Shivdasani first decided to launch Soneva Fushi back in the 1990s, what did you do to make the resort stand out among all the other ones already in the Maldives? Why did you think this strategy would work?

A. We opened Soneva Fushi in 1995, and it took us one year to build. Sonu put me in charge of all the interiors, which scared me greatly because I was a fashion designer, not a furniture designer. But what I wanted was to design everything myself in order to have things different from everyone else, and to make everything very sustainable and ecological. I would refuse to use any rainforest or other unsustainable wood. At the time it was very difficult to find, but I would never use teak grade A, for example, and managed to find teak plantations. I also used bamboo, coconut and recycled wood. Bamboo is extremely ecological.

We were the first high-end hotel in the Maldives, which at the time was a "diver's paradise", and the few hotels that were there had very low prices. The first time we went, there was no sweetwater, no AC, sometimes electricity only a few hours a day, and the food was terrible - even the fish was fried super-well-done.

We believed very much in a sustainable, elegant resort - hence our motto: "Intelligent Luxury". Elegance does not have to be marble and gold; it can be a natural environment - sand under the feet, open bathrooms, a beach right outside one's villa, and dining in the open under the stars.

We also pride ourselves in having high ethics when it comes to resort food. We would never serve anything morally irresponsible like caviar, foie gras, turtle or shark's fin soup. We grow our own salads - organically, of course - and make our own water that's cleaner and healthier than any bottled water.

Q. Soneva in Aqua will launch this year. What was behind your decision to create this luxury yacht, and how will it differ from other cruising experiences available on the market?

A. We wanted a yacht that even one couple could rent, so it would be very private. There are big boats like that in the Maldives, but one has to share it with other guests. Our guests can book it for day trips, overnight or longer. Soneva in Aqua is 64 feet. There are two big staterooms for the guests, and it has a crew of five, including a massage therapist.

Q. Soneva was one of the first brands to bring together luxury and sustainability within a resort. Now, increasingly sophisticated consumers demand only the most exclusive, authentic experiences, while stricter regulations and seasoned travellers expect a truly eco-friendly resort to be as such from the construction materials to the cuisine. How do you stay competitive and keep everyone happy?

A. Hopefully, people are intelligent enough to understand that we cannot treat our world with indifference if we want our grandchildren to live in a sustainable world and not suffer from polluted air and food shortages. For example, if we continue fishing like we do, there will be no fish in the sea in 50 years. We have to think twice about what we do.

We get comments all the time from extremely sophisticated guests that they are so happy to come to our place and not feel guilty about going on holiday somewhere where no one cares about the environment and the animals. Unfortunately, many hotels only think of the revenue and not about what they do to their children's world.

We have all the luxuries needed in a hotel, but some are on request, and all TVs are hidden behind panels or blinds. Many of our guests love the idea that all is there but not "in their face". One man actually turned off his mobile phone for the whole holiday and felt so relieved. He had never done that before, so Soneva Fushi has a very calming effect on our guests. The energy there is very relaxing.

Q. What would you say have been your most inspired decisions or strategies since you launched the Soneva brand?

A. We have actually had the Soneva brand since 1995, when we opened Soneva Fushi. Six Senses came a bit later when we needed a management company. Personally, I only wanted the Sonevas, and I'm so happy to now be back to that.